Shaw's Vegetate: Meat- and Alcohol-Free
Friday, March 31, 2006
Think about your weekend bar and club plans. Now think about the factors that led you to choose the where and the why. What are the most important requirements?
Judging by questions I get, great music is an obvious choice, along with good (and affordable) drinks; some late-night snack options; a lively crowd; and a balance of dance floor and lounge seating areas. Since no nightspot can be truly perfect, take away one of those options. Which one would you choose?
Vegetate, Shaw's only vegetarian-vegan restaurant and lounge, almost has everything going for it: The three-level townhouse, which opened last October near Ninth and P streets NW, is owned by local DJ extraordinaire Dominic Redd and wife Jennifer. The building's second-floor dining room and bar has soothing lettuce-green walls, with heavy oak mirrors behind the long wooden counter and brushed metal barstools on the other side. More sit in an adjacent lounge, which has slick hardwood floors for dancing and a state-of-the-art DJ booth. Paintings by local artists hang on the walls, changing every couple of weeks. Both spaces feature unreserved couch seating, flickering candles and small plates cooked by Sidra Forman and Derrick Bullock, late of Logan Circle's Viridian.
Try to order a glass of chardonnay or a bottle of Bud, though, and your server will instead suggest a sparkling water from Wales the way a sommelier might steer you toward a pinotage from South Africa or recommend the house-made ginger ale to accompany your sweet potato tart with collard greens. Vegetate has almost everything you need for a night out -- except liquor. The reason why is a tale of bureaucratic wrangling and local politics.
Dominic Redd is well-known on the nightlife scene for his work as DJ Dredd, packing in crowds as the original DJ at Prince-centered Lovesexy parties when they were at Modern, filling dance floors with old-school hip-hop and funk at the Blue Room's weekly Uncle Q's Living Room, and rocking Cleveland Park's Aroma lounge on Friday nights. For his most recent venture, though, he and his wife decided they'd rather focus on one of their pet peeves: a lack of hip, innovative restaurants in Washington that offer only meatless dishes. Both vegetarians, the Redds "got tired of going to places where all we could order was a veggie platter or pasta primavera," he says.
The couple signed a lease last year, but when they went for a liquor license hearing in August, they were surprised to find a boisterous crowd from Shiloh Baptist Church who came to argue against Vegetate's application. "They chartered a bus and brought like 100 or 150 people down" to the meeting, Redd says. "They said we were a nightclub and we were going to ruin the neighborhood."
Around the corner from Vegetate, Shiloh is a neighborhood fixture that boasts a large (and primarily suburban-based) congregation and owns a number of (vacant) properties nearby, and its members are steadfastly against adding liquor licenses on nearby streets. Last year, Shiloh successfully fought against a liquor license for the Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian restaurant just down Seventh Street.
The church's arguments against Vegetate initially focused on the assumption that Vegetate would open as a restaurant and then shift to focusing on nightclub-style dance nights, bringing more late-night activity and drunken behavior to the neighborhood instead of the fine-dining option many local organizations had supported. (That's not an entirely unwarranted allegation because that kind of bait-and-switch has occurred in other nightlife-heavy areas.) Redd disputes the claim, saying his fixed 10-year lease means his restaurant is not under pressure to make a quick buck from high-profit alcohol sales. Another argument was more direct: Shaw already has a problem with public drinking and drug use, and there was no reason to put another place selling liquor on Ninth Street.
Neighborhood residents, who've seen house prices soar without new retail and restaurants arriving at the same pace, got into the act, sending messages of support through the restaurant's Web site, http:/
Finally, the church's lawyers maintained that Vegetate was in violation of District liquor laws by operating within 400 feet of Seaton Elementary School. When the distances were measured, the city found that there were more than 900 feet between Vegetate's front door and the school's; more than 400 feet from the rear of Vegetate to the school's back door; and just 334 from a garage on the rear of Vegetate's lot -- "which isn't even attached to [the restaurant's] structure, and goes down an alley [to get to the school]," Redd says -- to the corner of the school's baseball field. Besides, he says, Vegetate opens long after third-graders have gone home for the day.
Still, rules are rules, and Vegetate's license application was denied on appeal in February.
What really ticks Redd off is that he wants to be "an asset to the community" when he could just trade the spinach lasagna and mushroom and kale soup for Powerball tickets and 40-ounce beers. Thanks to laws that grandfathered-in businesses such as the S&W liquor store, which sits directly across from Shiloh Baptist, Vegetate's owners were told that, for example, they could open a similar business in their location.